Charlotte once craved notoriety. She imagined herself on the Tonight Show, scintillating and sexy, the clips recirculating on Best-of shows, Johnny Carson barking that surprised laugh, head tipped back, the audience standing to cheer when she appeared from behind the flowing curtains.
She knew that girl, the sister of Thom’s college friend, in person a dowdy and dumb bunny, on Letterman her breasts augmented and voice squeezed into a cartoon kewpie doll. The transformation astonishing. The girl ruled the host, clever and suggestive of sex.
“I can’t believe that’s her,” Thom said, and Charlotte wondered what they’d all missed. How making a series of terrible horror movies earned the girl that slot.
Charlotte dressed carefully, somber, in the lawyer approved suit. She clipped the tags off the new over-sized sunglasses with her nail scissors. She practiced a neutral facial expression in the mirror.
Thom drove the rental. American-made as instructed, no detail left to chance.
The lawyers enmassed in the Walgreen’s parking lot. Charlotte lifted herself into the SUV backseat with Thom and Elizabeth Sussman, the A Team lawyer. Packets of tissues and a bottles of water lined the leather pockets of the seats in front of them, as if they were off to the airport on a trip to Europe.
“Questions?” The lawyer said from across the vehicle.
Charlotte watched the close-set triple deckers parade past her window in the sunshine of a beautiful day. Her parents were born in a neighborhood nearby, before the downtown courthouse complex was built, before they’d elevated to the wealthy suburbs.
Thom cleared his throat next to her.
The lawyer’s assistant twisted to them from the front passenger seat, phone to his ear. “ABC, NBC, CBS. And FOX.”
Sussman flipped open a handheld mirror and applied lipstick.
“Stop,” Charlotte said, “stop, stop,” her hand on the door handle, unbuckling her seat belt. Even before the vehicle had halted, she was leaning out the door over the filth-iced pavement, vomiting her morning coffee and stomach lining.
“Sorry,” she said, buckling, reaching for the water and tissues.
Sussman extended the mirror and an unopened roll of peppermints across Thom’s stilled body. “Big day, Char. We leave extra time.”
Charlotte had always thought that her anxiety prepared her in advance, that the actual crime, surgery, exam, speech, was nothing compared to her worry, the obsessive treading, retreading of what was about to happen. Once she arrived, a calm beset her and she wondered what the brouhaha had been about.
Except this time, no nerves could anticipate.
This time, she was stripped naked and the crowd pressed on her, leather jacketed arms snaked past the State trooper leading them, she could not help but raise her eyes from his broad back, crisscrossed belt, shaved neck, short haircut bulging from beneath his tight trooper hat, and beyond to the reporter’s faces, made up as TV clowns in exaggerated black eyeliner and red sculpted cheekbones, all to the music of screaming protestors, first the MURDERER KILLER MURDERER she had expected, and then BUSH BUSH HITLER BUSH she had not. The crush stole her breath.
Sussman stood on the stairs. Thom moved Charlotte and himself into their places alongside her. Beyond the news people and the crowd, beyond the parking lot obscured by dirty snow piles, the harbor rocked a tourist boat shuttered for the winter. The cold numbed her ankles past sharp pain.
“Prosecuting my clients, Thomas and Charlotte, will not induce them to produce what they cannot. They do not know where their daughter is, they do not hold the secret nor the key to this overzealous administration’s pursuit.”
Charlotte heard the words and knew the lines and saw the reporters angling microphones and digital recorders to their lawyer, and saw they knew the lines too, a callous and practiced indifference to the details. The lawyer protested, the audience pushed, call and response like church.
The tourist boat rocked and bumped against the dock.
The chanting began again. She could not bear to see her child’s accusers; afraid the parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles of the dead teenager would point at her and know her failing, and expose her, splay her open as mother of evil.
Her eyes traveled to the Anarchists, hoping for absolution with a tiny part of her heart, but more than that, hoping that her daughter would have reappeared, would have risked emerging from her hidden place to flash her a signal, to send secret word or gesture.
“I’m alive,” Honey would mouth, “I love you.”
Charlotte searched desperate, first the crudely painted signs of anger and rebellion, then the mittened and gloved hands that held them aloft, then the wool hats with familiar ear muffs, the tight skull caps and hooded sweatshirts, the faces with opened mouths and fervent beliefs, the jean jackets, long black woolen coats, and above all, the anger and outrage that infected her daughter, compelled her to this terrible thing.
They were corralling her to proceed up the steps, Thom’s arm looped in hers, she was resisting, risking the attention of the media, her eyes had not found her yet, her child was gone and her heart skidded. In the center of the crowd, a sudden glimpse of familiar, Charlotte twisted back, and her breath stopped.
That boy, Evan. The high school crush. He’d denied seeing her.
Evan had risked everything to be there. He knew where she was.